On paper, Erica Williams Simon’s life was flourishing. She regularly appeared on the TV news circuit, speaking on CNN, MSNBC, and Real Time with Bill Maher. She traveled the world spreading messages of empowerment and justice with the Center for American Progress. She had a happy marriage to the love of her life. And did it all by the age of 25.
But something was missing.
“I didn’t feel creative, I didn’t feel spiritually fulfilled. I didn’t feel financially stable. I was very uncertain about my future,” she recalled, noting that many of her peers felt a similar “generational malaise.”
So she quit.
That propelled Simon on a journey toward finding true fulfillment. How? By getting “story smart” — learning how stories shaped her perspectives without her even realizing it. It led Simon to write a book called You Deserve the Truth examining the thoughts, ideas, values and ultimately stories that shaped her world.
Simon discussed her journey at LIFT Labs during a fireside chat with Rakia Reynolds, founder and CEO of Skai Blue Media, a multimedia communications agency based in Philadelphia.
“I thought about how all these narratives and experiences shaped me,” said Simon. “I realized that, with the content we consume, so much of our identity is tied to how much money we make or how much we look like we make … but you didn’t come out of the womb wanting Louboutin shoes or needing to build a multi-million dollar enterprise.”
Reynolds summed up her point perfectly: “Some of us are living a narrative based on a story we didn’t write.”
For Simon, her dream was Oprah. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be the next Oprah or if I wanted Oprah to love me,” she joked. Asking herself where her Oprah obsession came from — and why it was shaping her career — helped Simon figure out that it wasn’t making her feel fulfilled.
“Figuring out your sweet spot and your purpose is much better than daydreaming about Oprah all day,” she said.
Simon’s newly dedicated focus on stories and narrative-led her to write columns for Time magazine, become an editor at feel-good site Upworthy; and head up the Creator’s Lab at Snapchat — talking with folks like basketball star Kobe Bryant and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu. Now she runs her own consulting firm, counts Snapchat as a client, and is still incredibly dedicated to helping people find and tell their own genuine stories.
5 Ways to Harness Narrative Intelligence to Tell — and Consume — Stories that Enrich Your Life
Curious about how to put Simon’s ideas into action? Harness your “narrative intelligence” — your ability to sense and solve problems through the lens of the story. It’ll make you a better storyteller as well as a better story consumer. During her chat at LIFT Labs, Simon shared the following tips:
- Question everything. Be constantly curious. Ask yourself, does the story I’m telling feel genuine to me? “If you start to recognize a dissonance — there’s a big gap between what you profess, what you believe — then it’s time to do some hard work.”
- Glean ideas from the stories others are telling. It’s not about modeling or mimicking, but simply opening your own mind to other possible narratives. Remember, there’s more than one way to define success. “There are people who have had bumps along the way, come from radically different backgrounds, or just define success differently.
- Be mindful of the content you consume. Stories are all around us — from your uncle’s political rants on social media to that viral video of a dog snuggling a newborn baby. But all stories are NOT created equal. Ask yourself if the content you’re consuming is feeding the narrative you’re hoping to showcase to the world.
- Find mentors who help you be your best self. The best mentors don’t want exact replicas of themselves. They want to help you become the best version of yourself. “The best people were the ones who held up a mirror and helped me see myself.”
- Add your unique values to your organization. Know your own values but don’t expect everyone to have the same beliefs. “Your story absolutely has value but if it’s not the currency of the environment you’re in, your job is to connect those dots. Figure out how your story, your identity, your values actually are additive to what the company values, rather than contrasting.”